Sustainability through Refillables: A Thai Perspective

Written by Meharbash Kashif

Posted on 23/05/2021

Focusing on the needs of the present without compromising the future – a movement of Sustainable products has been at the forefront of fashion trends and food stuffs in contemporary society, which stress the importance of ethically sourced, low waste and eco-friendly products. However, one of the biggest markets that is yet to follow this tangent is one that consumers use everyday: essential products we use everyday, from skincare to lunchboxes and water bottles. Such products include many single use plastics, only 7 percent of which get recycled and repurposed. Today, Thailand produces 0.8% of carbon dioxide emissions and has a lower per capita emission rate than the global average. Thailand also released the 2007 Action Plan on Global Warming Mitigation, calling for reduction of emissions by 15% than currently projected from 2012, showing their dedication to containing the effects of climate change. However, despite such efforts, the sustainability movement is new to Thailand, an interesting phenomenon. However, there have been trailblazers in such an industry, such as Refill Station, the first bulk store in Bangkok, Thailand. They hold hair and body cleaning and other daily products which can be refilled at their stores, eliminating single use plastics and reducing overall waste. I, Meg Kashif, interviewed the co-founder of Refill Station, Supatchaya Techachoochert on the importance of such their business, especially in Thailand where the sustainability movement is newly but rapidly evolving, the advantages of such a business model and the challenges they faced, especially during the pandemic.

Could you please introduce your business in a nutshell?

We are Refill Station, the first bulk store in Thailand so we encourage people to bring their own bottles to get them refilled with daily liquids as well as other alternative reusable products like water bottles, lunchboxes and menstrual cups.

How important are businesses like Refill Station in modern society?
I think they are very important though we didn’t have any other option when we started. Before having a store, I was personally a zero-waster and I tried to figure out how to reduce plastic waste. Then I began to make my own soap and shampoo which I’d distribute to many people because of the large quantity which I couldn’t even use up in a year! It was an expensive but convenient process so we decided to open Refill Station to be an option for other like minded people.
What are the main advantages of buying such a sustainable product to the consumer?
Firstly, consumers get the lowest price since there is no packaging and without influencers to advertise the products. Secondly, they have many choices so they can refill small amounts to try first and then change it or refill it later, which is very advantageous, particularly to ladies who prefer changing their shampoo and shower scents often.
You mentioned some products already but what other products are important to refill?
I personally begin with shampoo because we cannot find refillable shampoos in the supermarket. We can buy a refillable pack of soap, hand wash but not shampoo so that’s the first thing I realized and then later on I think many other items can be refillable like laundry detergent. It’s a product we use quite a lot and has become our top selling product. Another product people never think of is toothpaste. In older times, we would use powder toothpaste which was lightweight and consumed lower amounts of it but nowadays in modern society, we believe we don’t have many options other than just what’s at the convenience store.
Is the sustainability movement new to Thailand and how do you think that it’s become so popular?
It’s actually very new to Thai people like for example in our first year we had more than 80% of customers from outside Thailand as they were familiar with the concept of a bulk store and its importance. The locals still have a few questions about the whole process but the movement was going much better with more people concerned about single use plastic waste but after COVID , everything changed. It became harder to remain sustainable as people couldn’t go out and therefore couldn’t go refill their products but rather went to the convenient stores. More people also started delivering food which used up a lot of single use plastics in packaging so the movement in Thailand is constantly in flux.
What do you think is the future of sustainable businesses in Thailand?
It’s very difficult to tell in these situations as sustainability has become a new trend and there are many new businesses like Refill Station but I’m not sure about whether it would become a norm because many people are still attached to the convenience of using single use plastics. In the future, if biodegradable packaging becomes popular and more affordable we would have another choice for those who are keen on being environmentally friendly.
How does the business function and what are some challenges?
We survive by repeated customer selling as we don’t get new customers each month but there is consumer loyalty. There are also other factors such as that we are only in two locations which aren’t very convenient for them to travel to and mainly COVID right now is affecting the business model.
Apart from such refillable products and such a sustainable business, how do you think that we can ensure sustainability in our local community?
There are many ways that people don’t talk about a lot here, one of them being sustainable fashion. People in Thailand can get clothes for very cheap, you can find them for $3 but this contributes to heavy chemical use, increases their carbon footprint but sustainable fashion made by responsible production and natural cotton reduces this. We can also establish donation stations where people drop their clothes off. Another sustainable business locally, not in Bangkok but in other provinces is craft items which are hand made and are unique to the local community.
Thank you so much! Is there anything else you would like to mention?
I always mention personally that I think plastic is not evil, it’s actually a very good product. The problem is the single use plastics. Our mannerisms and behaviors towards convenience where we don’t reuse such products is what causes a lot of environmental problems. The material isn’t to blame but our behavior towards it is to blame. But this can be changed.

This interview gave us insight into how such sustainable businesses are thriving and changing the behavior of many in various local communities, however also highlighted the importance of vigilance during tough times to maintain our green outlook!

You can find more information about Refill Station and support the project here: https://www.refillstationbkk.com/
(all photos used are on their website!)

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